Fiscal restraint is prompting CIOs to be choosier than ever in selecting candidates from the slew of job applicants. IT management is using various strategies to get needed expertise while keeping staffing costs lean—from retraining staff to conducting “tryouts.”

As one TechRepublic member explained, making a poor hire in tough economic times can pose a double whammy—the IT organization doesn’t get needed skills, and there’s little money to hire on more help. That’s exactly why Chip Nickolett, the president of Comprehensive Consulting Solutions, Inc., a Brookfield, WI, IT management and consulting services firm, is using a “try before you buy” approach to staff recruiting.

In the last 18 months, Nickolett hired two “marginal” employees. The hires were a mistake he doesn’t want to repeat.

“Even with a thorough interview and background check, someone who appears to be ideal often is unable to consistently produce results and deal with the intense environment that comes with being a consultant,” explained Nickolett.

Nickolett now takes new employees for a “test-drive” for up to two months before extending a job offer. In this unique scenario, the company subcontracts with the most promising job candidate, paying an hourly rate that’s higher than a typical salary minus benefits. Depending on the success of the two-month trial, Nickolett then either hires the candidate or lets the contract expire so he can look for someone else.

“This has been very successful and has helped us weed out people who were not good fits for our organization,” said Nickolett. “In the end, that is best for everyone.”

Time lag in hiring a bigger issue than ever
Not all IT organizations have the leeway that Nickolett’s company has in extending permanent work. At the state of Ohio, for instance, the Ohio Revised Code governs how job candidates can be interviewed. The process includes posting jobs on “official” bulletin boards—electronic and otherwise—for two weeks. The state then tests the functional requirements of the applicant pool and schedules interviews.

The process can take six weeks to complete—plus an additional three weeks during the job-offer phase, explained TechRepublic member Angelo Serra, IT manager for Ohio’s Department of Jobs and Family Services.

Unlike many companies in which IT projects have been put on the back burner, the state of Ohio is pushing to complete a docket of IT projects, and the hiring time lag is a big issue.

“Due to some of the pressures of the various projects we work on and the need for government services in a downturn, we need to turn around hires a little more quickly,” said Serra.

To speed the process, Serra is now bringing in candidates immediately after the job postings close. He noted that the sheer volume of qualified job applicants is making it harder than ever, but there’s an upside to having so many IT workers applying.

“Because of the current economy, we do seem to have a higher-end applicant,” he said. “The final decision certainly is more difficult, but we end up with someone with better overall skills because of it.”

Retraining viewed as a valuable option
To save money and avert bad hires, some tech managers are investing training dollars on current employees who are willing to take on additional responsibilities. That’s the route TechRepublic member Joshua L. Abbey took while serving as IT manager at a New Jersey pharmaceutical company.

“It was far easier to justify the cost of a couple of courses and expect a bit of a learning curve than it was to justify a completely new hire,” explained Abbey.

When the pharmaceutical company could justify the expense of a new hire, the company made sure the applicant’s skill set fit the job requirements.

“Although we did accept one individual on a part-time basis to allow him to undergo training in a specific discipline valuable to himself and our company, that was the exception rather than the rule,” added Abbey.

Take extra time to avoid hiring mistakes
The best practice in hiring today, according to all the IT managers interviewed, is to make sure that every hire made is a good one. In the recent past, speed-to-hire was the staffing goal—and enterprises had more money to make up for mistakes. That strategy has now taken a back seat to quality-of-hire-based decision making.

According to the TechRepublic members I interviewed, a wrong hire can scuttle projects, cause a drop in morale, and demand a massive amount of management time to improve a worker’s job performance.

“My experience says rushing to staff-up inevitably brings unforeseen problems,” said Abbey.

Expect job candidates to tolerate a more rigorous evaluation—including interviews with more managers and staff members, the increased use of skills evaluation tools, and even personality examinations.

“People are looking for the ‘perfect fit,’ as opposed to someone who is just ‘good enough,’” said Nickolett.